The Japan Times Reviews “Master of Miniatures”

The review is entitled “Of monsters and men: Godzilla’s stable master:”

Jim Shepard’s “Master of Miniatures” is a masterful miniature, a small container filled with substantial events and substantial pleasures. Based on the life of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects man who made it possible for us to enjoy Godzilla destroying Tokyo, it’s the story of that destruction, the seismic destruction of Tokyo in 1923, the aerial destruction of Tokyo in World War II, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also the destruction that those catastrophes wreak on Tsuburaya’s marriage.

The novel begins with the disaster of Tsuburaya’s marriage. Having forgotten Tanabata, the Star Festival, the one day of the year the two stars, Altair and Vega — the two lovers — can come together, he wonders, “at which he was more adept: hurting Masano inadvertently or intentionally.”

The Tsuburayas, we learn, had, once during their long-distance courtship, identified with the star-lovers. The day the lovers come together had been special for them. The brief period of togetherness the couple enjoyed, however, has ended. Now, after the death of their daughter “they each put in longer days, he in his innovations and his wife in her grieving.”

Tsuburaya’s innovations are, of course, in the realm of special effects, the ingenuity that made Godzilla — the monster and the movie — as powerful as they were. We learn, among the many other interesting things Shepard squeezes into a mere fifty pages, that the Godzilla-suit worn by the actor who towered over the 1/25th scale Tokyo weighed 100 kilos and thus, for scenes that would show only the top or bottom half of the monster, only half the suit was worn. We learn that the planes that menaced Godzilla to so little effect were filmed hanging upside down, and that the film was then inverted in order to conceal the wires because “no one noticed them below the aircraft instead of above.”

That Shepard is able to enrich his novella with such information and that the knowledge he shares is always essential, never arbitrarily dumped, is a marker of his skill.

As we learn in accurate detail about the various catastrophes that accompany the creator of the destruction of Tokyo through life, we notice that he’s never quite present for them. On the day of the 1923 earthquake, for example, he was meant to have met his father from whom he had been estranged after running away to Tokyo to pursue a career in the movies. Tsuburaya is unable to make that rendezvous, a missed opportunity that increases in significance when his father, after ordering Tsuburaya from his hospital room, dies of the injuries sustained in the quake and its aftermath.

This is an example of how Shepard is able to use a catastrophe such as the Tokyo quake not as sensationalistic filler, but as an element of his novella’s design. The ever-widening schism between Tsuburaya and his wife, for example, also appears to stem from his never quite being there, even after his daughter dies. He always retreats into his work: the meticulous creation of destruction.

The smaller a work is the less baggy it can be. To be a success it must succeed at sentence, rather than paragraph or chapter, level. When Shepard writes not that an interviewer was aggressive, but rather that he “asked each of his questions as if jabbing a tied dog with a stick,” we see that he understands this.

Shepard has created a text rich with sentences as carefully wrought, and luminous with details that radiate well beyond the covers of this deceptively small book, a miniature that is anything but.

The full review can be found here.

“Heartbreaking and True, and Not One is Less than Perfect.”

Jim Shepard is a professor of film and creative writing at Williams College. He has been published in Granta, McSweeney's, and The New Yorker, among other publications.

NPR has an absolutely glowing review of “You Think That’s Bad.”  Here’s an excerpt:

It’s the near future in Rotterdam, South Holland, and climate change has caused the glaciers of Africa and the Rocky Mountains to disappear. Worldwide, ice sheets have collapsed and countries have flooded to the point of being nearly uninhabitable. The narrator of “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” a hydraulic engineer, tries to save his marriage while simultaneously racing to protect his nation from a flood that could kill thousands. He’s stoic, but not optimistic: “At this point each of us understands privately that we’re operating under the banner of lost control.”

“The Netherlands” isn’t the only story about disaster and lost control in Jim Shepard’s new collection, You Think That’s Bad, though it might be the most striking one. Shepard, author of the acclaimed story collections Love and Hydrogen (2004) and Like You’d Understand, Anyway (2007), is a master not only of the short story, but also of the prose of pain, disappointment and powerlessness. Each of the 11 stories in his new book is heartbreaking and true, and not one is less than perfect.

Shepard’s evocation of catastrophes both small and large, real and fictional, is an amazing study in contrast and loss, and it’s exquisitely written.

You Think That’s Bad is perhaps more preoccupied with disaster than any of Shepard’s previous works, with the possible exception of his brilliant 2004 novel Project X, the story of a school shooting. In “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” a group of scientists lives on a Swiss mountain under the constant threat of avalanche. The narrator of “Boys Town,” a war veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder, makes a series of terrible decisions until he’s cornered both physically and emotionally. “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” a story of a French aristocrat who sexually abuses and murders a series of young boys, is so raw, unsparing and stark, it’s almost impossible to read in one sitting.

Some of Shepard’s disasters are writ smaller, but are no less tragic. The most accomplished story in the book, “Gojira, King of the Monsters,” follows the unhappy life of Eiji Tsuburuya, the special-effects director responsible for the Godzilla movies. Previously published as a stand-alone book by Solid Objects, under the title Master of Miniatures, “Gojira” is one of the best American short stories in years — Shepard’s evocation of catastrophes both small and large, real and fictional, is an amazing study in contrast and loss, and it’s exquisitely written.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve probably all sat in front of our computers or televisions, refreshing our browsers or changing channels every few minutes, wondering how much more bad news the world can take. Very few of us, however, can ever know how the devastation really feels. Jim Shepard’s beautiful, essential stories might not change that, but they do prove that he’s one of the most perceptive, intelligent and fearless writers of fiction in America today. What we learn from pain isn’t up to us, after all, but what we learn from Shepard is this: pain is pain, there are no small tragedies, and all disasters are unnatural.

Click here to read the full review as well as an excerpt from the collection.  Hooray for Jim!

“One of the finest stories I’ve ever read”

Here’s a review of the story “Boys’ Town” by Jason Rice from a really interesting, edgy literary site called The Nervous Breakdown:

“Boys Town” by Jim Shepard from the collection You Think That’s Bad

I’ve always come across Jim Shepard’s work, he pops up every other year or so, sometimes I find myself reading his stories, other times I completely miss them. When I miss his collections I feel horrible, but this time around the nice people at Knopf sent me an early copy of his new collection, You Think That’s Bad, which will be published in March of next year. Books are rarely sent to me unsolicited, Harper Perennial and Knopf are the exceptions, I like what they publish, they know what I like to read, and both houses recognize the power of early buzz from the blogsphere. That being said, when I do get something sent to me, I usually tear right through it. With this collection I read a few stories and then more things got sent my way, and before I knew it, this book was sitting in a pile.

Then the New Yorker published “Boys Town by Jim Shepard”, one of the finest stories I’ve ever read, in last week’s issue. It’s nice to see someone who is not on the “chosen list” of writers getting his due in those pages.  They also ran a great profile on Elvis Costello, and I toggled back and forth between the two, while I worked my second job at the gas station. “Boys Town” will take your breath away, it’s quick tongue, fast and nasty conversations will keep you wondering when things will break open. The narrator has just returned from the war, the only war that matters to anyone anymore, Iraq.  Something is wrong with him, as his days are spent at home with his mother who is fed up with his bullshit, and has only a few nice things to say to him when she’s not tearing him a new asshole for being a lazy bastard. You’ll be drawn to this man’s point of view, he’s not someone you can like, but without a doubt he’s someone you can fear, and I suspect you’d cross the street to avoid him. He’s become a survivalist, or at least brags that he can live in the wild, and tells stories about his cache of weapons he keeps stashed in the woods. From the outside world our narrator gets calls from his ex-wife who is looking for child support, and heartbreaking messages from his son who is trying to connect with his father.  I was instantly drawn to this man, even though it seemed he was on a path of destruction, or self isolation. He has returned from battle to a world that’s forgotten all about him, and hasn’t really changed since he left, but certainly, something has changed inside him.

There is a scary turn of events that unfolds so fast you’ll have to go back and read the story again.  As things quickly fall apart for our war hero, he begins to use his gun to gain the attention of everyone around him. There are very few stories in The New Yorker that hold on as tight as this one did, and kept me hoping that things would work out for the best, but like life, things sometimes end badly. I was looking ahead to see if he died, or was beaten to a pulp, and wished he’d be able to disappear in the woods like he planned…

Check out the Nervous Breakdown site here.